Altoona playing with cohesion
TRENTON, N.J. — A win tonight would cap a remarkable season for the Curve by giving them a clean sweep of the Eastern League playoffs and just the second championship in franchise history.
This is a terrific Double-A team. And the key word is team.
The Curve’s tremendous pitching is getting most of the attention — and rightfully so with a 1.20 ERA in the playoffs — but this club’s ability to play clean, efficient games in all aspects cannot be overlooked.
It’s not a great offensive team. But it’s been plenty good enough, and hitting in the clutch has been a specialty of late.
The defense has been superb, tying franchise records for fewest errors and best fielding percentage in a season.
But enough with stats. What’s the real reason this Curve team is so good?
“The No. 1 ingredient to a championship-caliber team is cohesion,” manager Michael Ryan said. “Team camaraderie, guys that like each other, like to come to the clubhouse, be around each other, guys that really get along. It just makes them want to put the guy behind them in a better situation to succeed.”
Pitcher J.T. Brubaker, who won Wednesday night’s Game 2 in the ELCS, echoed Ryan’s thoughts, substituting the word cohesion with chemistry.
“We’ve had team chemistry all year,” Brubaker said. “That’s a big thing, just having that chemistry throughout the clubhouse the entire season, even with the moves up and down.”
By its very nature, because there are always so many player moves throughout a season, minor league baseball isn’t exactly a sport where cohesion and chemistry are common. It’s very hard, in fact, for clubs to achieve that sort of thing in the minors, especially during tough times.
The Curve lost their four best players a while back — OF Jordan Luplow, 2B Kevin Kramer, 1B Edwin Espinal and SS Kevin Newman — with all but Kramer (broken hand) going up to Triple-A.
Some replacements came up from high-A, some holdovers began putting up bigger contributions, and the pitching staff turned into a major force. Shortstop Cole Tucker had been playing great but broke his hand in the first-round playoff series last week, and fortunately for the club, Kramer was back healthy and took that roster spot.
Add it all up, and it’s led to a division title and 5-0 start to the postseason.
“Playoffs, we started from zero, and we just tried to play our game and pay attention to the little details,” outfielder Elvis Escobar said.
This is the third straight year the Curve have made the playoffs, and all three years have been similar in that a lot of the team’s best players went to Triple-A and other guys had to step in and keep things going.
Two things are in play here.
The first one is easy — talent.
“It’s a testament to our organization,” Kramer said. “We have a lot of really, really good players, and not a lot of people realize that. People just think about top prospects, and that doesn’t matter at this level. It’s about playing good baseball, and we have a lot of good baseball players on this team and in this organization.”
The second element that has made the Curve good for three years is the more subtle cohesion element.
“We do a good job drafting guys with huge makeup, good individuals, guys know that the team comes first instead of their individual performance,” Ryan said. “We try to build winners.”
The Pirates generally have moved large groups of players up a level at the same time, so most of the guys know each other very well. The bulk of players on this Curve team won a Florida State League title at high-Bradenton last year, so they not only know each other, they know how to win.
And they expect to win. Which is always a huge part of any championship team.
“Big moments, guys raise their level of play, and that’s exactly what we’re doing right now,” Ryan said.
As Tucker put it, “It’s a bummer not to be able to go finish it off with the guys” because of his broken hand. But he’s with the team every day, pulling for his friends and enjoying the ride.
All of these guys are enjoying the ride, because they truly like and care about one another and have great team cohesion or chemistry, or whatever you want to call it.
And after tonight, they may be calling themselves Eastern League champions.
Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.